Sexual Orientation Hate Crime Laws and Youth Suicide Risk

September 16, 2022

News Type:  Weekly Spark, Weekly Spark Research

State laws that aim to prevent hate crimes related to sexual orientation may help reduce suicide among high-school-aged youth, suggests a recent study.

Using data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), researchers examined suicide attempts among youth in states with hate crime laws that explicitly name sexual minorities as a protected population, states that do not include them as a protected group, and states without any hate crime laws. They found there were 62,274 past-year suicide attempts among youth in the study, with an overall prevalence of 8.6 %. The estimated prevalence of suicide attempts among youth who identified as gay or lesbian (25.7%), bisexual (27.1%), or questioning (18.5%) was considerably higher than among their heterosexual peers (6.3%).

The study found that including sexual minorities as a protected group in state-level hate crime laws reduced suicide attempt rates among youth by a small but significant percentage compared to state laws that did not include them as a protected group. The reduction in suicidal behaviors did not differ in magnitude between lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning and heterosexual respondents, suggesting that the passage of hate crime laws related to sexual orientation may benefit all youth. Reductions in suicide attempts were larger among questioning and bisexual youth compared to their gay or lesbian peers. Youth outcomes in states with hate crime laws that lacked specific protections for sexual minority populations did not differ from states without any hate crime legislation.

Experiencing social stigma, discrimination, and associated stress can increase suicide risk and mental health challenges among youth who identify as LGBTQIA+. This study highlights the potential benefit of state legislation that specifically names sexual minority populations as a protected group. Enactment of such legislation may be an indicator of a more supportive political environment which, in turn, may lessen actual or perceived stigma and victimization.

This study has some limitations. The identification of sexual and gender identity was based on a self-report survey, and it is likely that some respondents might have been reluctant to disclose this information. The authors noted that the validity of questions exploring sexual preferences have been questioned due to variability in the interpretation of the question. Also, the language and provisions of hate crime laws differ across states, making it difficult to establish a direct link between the legislation and behavioral outcomes.

Despite its limitations, the results of this study are intriguing. There have been few studies of the impact of legislation and public policy on individual suicide-related behavior. The results of this study highlight the need for further research on this topic.

Prairie, K., Kivisto, A. J., Gray, S. L., Taylor, N., & Anderson, A. M. (2022). The association between hate crime laws that enumerate sexual orientation and adolescent suicide attempts. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Advance online publication.